This guide is a reference for the people who create HHS.gov website content including news releases. HHS follows the Associated Press Stylebook (also called AP Style), with exceptions noted in this guide.
About this style guide
Style rules, particularly those related to academic and professional titles, are difficult to enforce and may require some flexibility from time to time.
Following style rules helps ensure clarity and consistency, making our web content easier to understand, read, and use. And by following AP Style as much as possible, we can sometimes avoid changes to our text by reporters and editors at outside publications who also follow AP Style.
For issues not covered in this style guide or the AP Stylebook, refer to these resources:
- Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition, (the primary reference for issues not covered by the AP Stylebook)
- MedlinePlus (an online health information resource managed by the National Library of Medicine)
Please note that this style guide does not apply to memos from the Executive Secretariat or to policy documents, which follow The Chicago Manual of Style.
We created the guidelines with three main goals in mind:
- Create a helpful experience for our customers
- Increase the efficiency, consistency, and clarity of our HHS.gov content
- Support the department’s compliance with government-wide laws, policies, and executive orders, including:
- The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), which requires federal executive branch agencies to report to Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the general public on their progress to modernize their websites and digital services.
- The Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires that federal agencies use clear communication the public can understand and use. (Visit plainlanguage.gov to learn why and how to use plain language.)
- Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which requires federal agencies to ensure their information and services are accessible to people with disabilities. The Revised 508 Standards include not just IT tools and systems, but electronic content such as documents, web pages, presentations, social media content, blogs, and certain emails.
HHS follows the Associated Press Stylebook (also called AP Style). While you need a subscription to access the full guide, we’ve included links to key entries whenever possible.
We integrated guidance from other government departments and agencies including but not limited to:
HHS is committed to writing digital content in plain language. To learn more about plain language, visit:
- Federal Plain Language Guidelines (plainlanguage.gov)
- Guidelines for effective writing (cms.gov)
- Your Guide to Clear Writing (cdc.gov)
- Plain Writing: It's the Law! (fda.gov)
In addition, HHS is committed to following best practices for writing for accessibility.
988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
A national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in the United States. Call or text 988; chat 988Lifeline.org
Abbreviations and acronyms
Use as few as possible. In general, spell out upon first reference except for exceptions noted in the AP Stylebook and in this style guide.
Exception to AP Style: It is AP style to use "Dr." before a name when the person holds a medical degree. HHS style is John Jones, M.D., although Dr. Jones would be an acceptable second reference.
We do not use “Dr.” to describe HHS employees with non-medical doctorates, such as a Ph.D. On first reference, we would say, "Sam Smith, Ph.D." Second reference would be “Smith.”
Do not include an alphabet soup of degrees after a person’s name. Select the most important/relevant degrees.
Writers play a critical role in ensuring that websites are accessible to people with disabilities and in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This also applies to documents published on websites, like PDFs and images.
Follow guidance from Digital.gov and Section508.gov:
Related style guide entries:
Acting (as a job title)
Exception to AP style. The AP does not capitalize "acting" as a job title. However, Acting is a term of law when applied to a person holding an HHS position, because an acting holder of a position can have different levels of responsibility than a permanent appointee. HHS style, “acting” should be capitalized as part of a formal title If a person is either officially named to that job, or unofficially serving in that position. Use lowercase when the title follows the name.
Similarly, if a person is not officially named as acting holder of a position, avoid even lowercase use.
If the title follows the name, however, use lowercase, as proper grammar.
- Acting Commissioner Pat Jones
- Pat Jones, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Exception to AP style. Write out street names (street, road, avenue, boulevard, highway, etc.) in both copy and in address blocks. Don’t abbreviate.
When a street address contains a compass point (north, south, etc.), defer to the way it’s referenced locally. For example, some cities may abbreviate compass points like north and south for some but not all streets.
Per AP style. (as in a presidential administration) – Lowercase “administration.” Hyphenate president and vice-president, as in the Biden-Harris administration.
Exception to AP style. For federal government positions, write advisor not adviser. As in, Senior Advisor.
Agency, agencywide, interagency
Only capitalize agency when it is part of an official agency name, e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency.
Agencywide is one word, no space or hyphen. It refers to anything that extends or exists throughout an entire agency.
Interagency is one word, no hyphen is needed. It refers to something occurring between or involving two or more agencies.
Agency names and use of the word "the/The"
On first reference, spell out the agency name and follow with the acronym in parentheses. The acronym by itself suffices for subsequent references. It’s also permissible to use a shorter paraphrase such as the Center. For all HHS agencies, refer to the agency website to confirm correct usage of the agency name.
In general, we use "the" (lowercase) before the agency name (the Office of the Inspector General).
Avoid. Use “a or b or both.” Example: They will serve apples or pears or both.
Avian Flu-Swine Flu-Pandemic Flu (Or Influenza)
Because the AP Stylebook does not cover this, here is the correct use of terms from www.flu.gov
- Seasonal (or common) flu is a respiratory illness that can be transmitted person to person. Most people have some immunity, and a vaccine is available.
- Avian (or bird) flu is caused by influenza viruses that occur naturally among wild birds. The H5N1 variant is deadly to domestic fowl and can be transmitted from birds to humans. There is no human immunity and no vaccine is available.
- Swine Flu is caused by influenza viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia, plus avian and human genes. The H1N1 flu virus caused the 2009-2010 Pandemic. HHS uses the term only as a parenthetical to "H1N1" flu, or to identify it as "commonly known as ‘swine flu'."
- Pandemic flu is virulent human flu that causes a global outbreak, or pandemic, of serious illness. Because there is little natural immunity, the disease can spread easily from person to person.
Bold text and how to emphasize words or phrases
Use bolded text to call attention to words or phrases that will help the website user understand the content on the page.
Don’t use bold in these cases:
- Hyperlinked text: Links on HHS.gov are automatically blue and underlined. Therefore it is not necessary to use bold.
- Subheads: Use headers rather than bold to indicate a subhead. If you submit content to the ASPA Digital Service desk in a Microsoft Word document, use the header settings to mark the headers.
Don’t use the following to emphasize text:
- Underlining – Use only for clickable links
- Italics – Use for titles
- Colored text – It doesn’t show up well on a screen, and sometimes it can be harder to read than normal text, especially for people who are colorblind.
Refer to “Lists”
January 1 through December 31. Often used to differentiate from the fiscal year. Avoid using the abbreviation CY. If you are referring to fiscal year, specify so.
Use sentence case capitalization, with a few exceptions, for most content including subheadings (H2 level and below), and text links. Most words are lowercase, except for the first word in a sentence, proper nouns, and titles.
- Example of sentence case: “Baltimore is the biggest city in Maryland.”
Use title case capitalization for proper nouns, headlines, and website navigation labels.
- Example of title case: “Biden-Harris Administration Continues Unprecedented Efforts to Increase Transparency of Nursing Home Ownership”
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
Use the ampersand rather than “and”
Chair, chairperson, chairman, chairwoman
HHS follows AP style for these terms. This is a change from the previous version of the style guide:
- In general, use terms such as chair or chairperson, councilperson unless the -man or -woman terms are specified by an organization
- Capitalize as a formal title before a name: company Chair Henry Khan, committee Chairwoman Margaret Chase Smith
- Do not capitalize as a casual, temporary position: chair Dara Jackson
Chair is acceptable as a verb: She chaired the meeting; he chairs the committee.
Per NIH Style Guide. Avoid using “citizen” as a generic term for people who live in the United States. How you refer to the public depends on the context. “People”, “the public”, or “users” could all be appropriate.
“Citizens” should be used for information directly related to U.S. citizenship, such as when describing who is eligible to vote in federal elections.
Exception to AP style. Use the “serial comma” before "and" in a series: "To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God," not "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." As the example shows, omitting the serial comma can create ambiguity, even potential legal problems for the government. The serial comma also improves scannability, clarifying to users how many items are in a series.
Refer in uppercase to the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Identify the Commissioned Corps as part of the U.S. Public Health Service. Then, on second reference, you can say someone is an officer in the Commissioned Corps.
Days and months
Abbreviate days and months only when space is very limited, such as in callout boxes, alerts, or promo components, etc.
- Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri., Sat., Sun.
- Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., Dec. (Don’t abbreviate March, April, May, June, July)
Per AP style. Not required in news releases because the web page identifies location, but allowable. Do not use a dateline when a release is a roundup, like when news comes from several different areas and the writer wasn’t in any of those places. (e.g., a multicenter study)
When used, the dateline should reflect where the news is happening, not where the news release is written.
Unless there is a clearly identifiable need, we do not carry numbers beyond the second decimal point.
Lowercase “department” whenever it stands alone, even in reference to HHS. Example: “We are working across the department to …” Do not abbreviate “department” in any usage.
Lowercase department in plural uses but capitalize the proper name element: the departments of Labor and Justice.
The following are the U.S. Cabinet departments:
- Department of Agriculture (USDA acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Commerce
- Department of Defense (DOD or Pentagon acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Education (ED acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Energy (DOE acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Health and Human Services (HHS acceptable on second reference and sometimes on first reference, depending on context)
- Department of Homeland Security (DHS acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD acceptable on second reference)
- Department of the Interior
- Department of Justice (DOJ acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Labor
- Department of State (DOS acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Transportation (DOT acceptable on second reference)
- Department of the Treasury (Treasury acceptable on second reference)
- Department of Veterans Affairs (VA acceptable on second reference).
Avoid acronyms when possible. A phrase such as “the department” is preferable on second reference because it is more readable and avoids alphabet soup.
Lowercase. Not e-mail.
For plain language, use plain language words like “faster,” “quicker,” or “speed up,” depending on context.
Lowercase as a general term (e.g., the federal government, federal assistance). Uppercase as part of a proper noun (e.g., the Federal Reserve).
The federal government's fiscal year begins on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year. When referencing the fiscal year, write it out the first time and then reference it by the acronym FY in subsequent references (e.g., “In Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22), we received x amount of funds”). Write the acronym with no spacing between FY and the last two digits of the year (FY21, FY22), and not FY 2021, FY 2022 with a space and the full year.
To avoid confusion, always use the term “fiscal year” and not “budget year.”
HHS recently updated its terminology when referring to grants. Please use the following terms:
- Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) instead of “Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA)”
- Recipient instead of “grantee”
- Subrecipient instead of “subawardee”
- Opportunity instead of “announcement”
For accessibility and usability, organize headers by level. If you submit content for publishing in a Microsoft Word document, use the Microsoft Word header styling. The headline of the webpage is always H1. The next header should be H2. From there, you can either use a H3 for subheads or go directly to the next H2. Do not skip header levels. For example, do not jump from a H1 to a H3. Refer to W3C guidance on headings for more information.
Headlines (news releases, fact sheets, and reports)
All words in headlines use title case capitalization. Italics are not used in headlines or subheads.
Two words, except if used as such as part of a proper noun such as an organization’s name or a title. Not healthcare.
- “Healthcare and Public Health Sector (HPH)” - Healthcare is one word in this instance because it refers to Presidential Policy Directive 21.
Refer to CDC’s Gateway to Health Communication – Resources for Writers
The official acronym, replacing DHHS. No need to spell out in first reference on HHS.gov webpages. OK to use the acronym on first reference. When referring to HHS, use informal pronouns - we/our – example: HHS is fulfilling our mission.
The possessive is HHS’s.
HHS’s website. The acronym is uppercase and the extension is lowercase. When part of an email address, all lowercase.
Use depends on what you’re referring to. See HIV.gov for more specific examples. General guidelines are to use:
- HIV/AIDS when referring to the infectious disease in general
- HIV when referring to the virus or the pre-AIDS stage
- AIDS when the disease is in an advanced stage
Follow best practices to ensure images are accessible and useful. Best practices include:
- File size: All images on HHS.gov need to be less than 1 MB to support fast page load.
- Captions: Use a caption to identify people, places, and things in photos. Captions show up on web pages, unlike alt text.
- Alt text: Provide alternative (“alt”) text for people who use screen readers. Alt text is not visible on web pages. Refer to Digital.gov’s accessibility guidelines for more information.
- File names: Keep file names as short as possible. Longer file names increase file size and are harder to remember. Additional guidance includes:
- Don’t use spaces or special characters (ex. ?, %, #, /, : , and ’ ) in filenames
- Use hyphens (not underscore) as separators.
- Use all lowercase
- Remove dates or version control notations (i.e. v1, FINAL, 4-13-edits)
- Hyperlink the most relevant word or phrase.
- Use natural and descriptive language that aligns with the header of the linked page so the user gets what they expect. To make your link text concise, it’s OK to deviate slightly from the header of the linked page. However, If the link text is much different from the header of the next page, users might think they landed in the wrong place.
- Be succinct – avoid links of longer than 3 or 4 words.
- Do not use the phrase “Click here” to introduce a link.
- Avoid generic call-to-action links like “Learn more” and “Read more” by themselves. If you need to use them, ensure accessibility by including ARIA labels. ASPA Digital content team can provide guidance on how to write ARIA labels.
- Example: If “Learn More” anchor text links to a page with the H1 header “Head Start,” a useful and appropriate ARIA label would be “Learn more about Head Start.”
- If the embedded link text comes at the end of a sentence, don’t hyperlink the period at the end.
- For links to files such as PDFs and Excel spreadsheets, note the file type directly after the link. (The content management system for HHS.gov does this automatically.)
- Example: Download a home toolkit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
- Do not use the same link text for links that go to a different location – use title or an ARIA label to differentiate the links for 508 compliance. (Refer to the 18F guidance for links and repetitive content.)
Links (HHS.gov linking policy)
Links to websites that are not government-owned or government-sponsored must be approved by the HHS.gov content team before publishing on HHS.gov.
Links to non-government websites must not:
- Use language that implies endorsement
- Have political content (petitions, disparaging remarks about a party or person, etc.)
Please note: HHS.gov’s content publishing system will automatically include an outbound link icon for any link that does not end in a .gov domain.
The U.S. Web Design System offers additional guidance on links.
Bulleted and numbered lists help make information easier to read and scan. Consider using them when a sentence contains more than three items or ideas. At the same time, avoid overusing bulleted lists. A page full of dots and indents can be overwhelming.
Use numbered lists only when the sequence or count of items is important. In other cases, use bulleted lists.
Introduce lists with a clear descriptive sentence or phrase, also known as a lead-in. The lead-in does not need to be a complete sentence if the list items complete the thought in a clear and meaningful way. A lead-in phrase should be followed by a colon, while an introductory sentence should be followed by a period.
Best practices for formatting lists include:
- Capitalize the first word of every list item.
- Use subheads to break up long lists (more than seven items) into shorter ones.
- Use parallel construction within the same list. Start each list item with the same part of speech. When a list item starts with a verb, make each verb the same tense.
- When the list is made up of fragments, don’t use ending periods after each list item, including the last item.
- When the list is made up of full sentences, use ending periods after each list item.
- Note: It’s OK to have on one web page a list of bullets comprised of fragments (that don’t use periods) and a list of bullets that is full sentences (that use periods). Use the formatting that best fits the content in the list.
Best practices for writing for the web include:
- Knowing your audience
- Omitting needless words
- Following best practices in accessibility
(The lead-in is clear, the bullet points are parallel, and punctuation is used correctly and consistently.)
Best practices for writing for the web:
- Knowing your audience
- Omit needless words.
- Following best practices in accessibility
(The lead-in is not clear, the bullet points are not parallel, and punctuation is not used consistently.)
Log in, log out
Don’t use sign in/sign out, log on.
- Like this: Log in to make an appointment.
- Not this: Log on to make an appointment.
Since the ranks for the Commissioned Corps follow Navy style, and the Navy generally follows AP style for abbreviating the ranks in general usage, HHS follows Navy/AP style. View the AP Stylebook entry for additional ranks not listed here.
|Vice Admiral||Vice Adm.|
|Rear Admiral Upper Half||Rear Adm.|
|Rear Admiral Lower Half||Rear Adm.|
|Lieutenant Commander||Lt. Cmdr.|
|Lieutenant, Junior Grade||Lt. j.g.|
|Chief Warrant Officer||Chief Warrant Officer|
Identify doctors on first reference by: Name, followed by military rank, followed by medical degree. Use Dr. Smith or just the last name thereafter.
Example: Adm. Firstname Lastname, M.D., assistant secretary for health.
Refer to mpox
Per AP style. The correct term for the virus formerly known as monkeypox. To ensure web searchers not aware of the updated term can find our content, follow AP Stylebook: “Until the new name becomes more widely known, use mpox on first reference and mention its former name in one reference later in the story.” Mpox is pronounced EM’-pox.
Naming and labels
Most tools, products, benefits, offices, and programs don’t need a brand name or branded label. Overusing capitalization or acronyms results in “brand clutter.” Best practice is to use plain language words that people already understand.
Your VA education benefits can help you pay for books, supplies, and housing while you’re learning a trade or skill through on-the-job training.
Your VA Education Benefits can help you pay for books, supplies, and housing while you’re learning a trade or skill through On-the-Job Training (OJT).
Spell out this word. Don’t abbreviate to “No.” or “#.”
Use figures for all numbers above nine. Spell out all numbers under 10. Use figures for all ages, sums of money, time of day.
Older adult(s), older person/people
Preferred over senior citizens, seniors, or elderly as a general term that does not refer to specific people. Refer to the AP Stylebook and the NIH Style Guide’s entry on age for more information.
Send all PDFs to the 508 help desk for accessibility review before posting to HHS.gov. Use this accessibility intake form to request review.
We recommend that content creators refer to and follow best practices for creating accessible PDFs before submitting them to the 508 help desk. This saves time and resources.
Use the % sign after a number, no space between. The pay rose 2.5% from last year.
Use hyphens between numbers. Don’t use parentheses to set off the area code: 212-123-1234.
- Use +1 only when the information is specifically addressing people who are living outside the U.S.: +1-201-123-1234.
- For phone numbers with an extension, use ext. at the end: 202-123-1234, ext. 9.
- Always include days and hours of operation when listing a phone number.
- Use “select” to indicate the menu option after dialing a phone number.
- Call us toll-free at 800-827-1000. We’re here Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. ET.
We don’t use vanity phone numbers in body copy, as it adds visual noise and is not helpful to screen readers. We only use the numeric phone numbers in body copy.
Exception: In promotional messaging, we can make an exception for vanity phone numbers.
Use the following format: 877-222-VETS (8387). Hyperlink the complete number including the parenthetical.
Follow best practices detailed on PlainLanguage.gov.
In general, use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women.” This is more inclusive of minors and people who do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people. However, use judgment and decide what is most appropriate for the content you are writing or editing. Per AP style, do not use overly clinical language like “people with uteruses” or “birthing people.”
Do not mention professional associations by abbreviation (e.g., FACS, FAAP) after a person's name. If the news is about a professional association, write out the name of the association, and write out the affiliation of the person in the release (e.g., Dr. Jones, a member of the American College of Surgeons).
We typically use the past tense in quotes: Smith said, instead of Smith says.
Do not use "irregardless."
Don’t use accent marks when referring to the noun, as in a job resume.
Acceptable in all references for severe acute respiratory syndrome, but it should be spelled out somewhere in the text.
Names of seasons are lowercase.
Capitalize before a name only if it is an official corporate or organizational title, as it is at HHS. Do not abbreviate. When referring to the HHS Secretary, capitalize even if the proper name is not included.
Use these terms carefully and sparingly. Do not refer to a person as elderly unless it is clearly relevant to the article. It is appropriate in generic phrases that do not refer to specific individuals: concern for the elderly, a home for the elderly, etc. If the intent is to show that an individual's faculties have deteriorated, cite a specific example and give attribution for it.
Images of an original official signature should not be displayed, especially on a publicly accessible Web site. Refer to HHS.gov Web Policies for details on the proper way to indicate an official signature in website content.
Social Security number
Don’t capitalize “number.” Do not publish Social Security numbers on public-facing websites.
Per USPS State Abbreviations, not AP style. Example: MS, MO, MN and MI, not Miss., Mo., Minn. And Mich. Additional style examples include:
- “State of” constructions: Lowercase, as in “the state of Maine,” “the states of Maine and Vermont.”
- State as an adjective: Lowercase, as in state Representative William Smith, the state Transportation Department, state funds.
- Commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, are legally commonwealths, rather than states. The distinction is necessary only in formal uses: The commonwealth of Kentucky filed a suit.
See 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
Teen, teenager (n.) teenage (adj.)
Do not use teen-aged.
All temperatures should include either °F or °C following the number. There should be no spaces between the number and the degree symbol, or between the degree symbol and the letter. If including both Fahrenheit and Celsius, the latter should follow in parentheses: 98.6°F (37°C).
Use “that” and “which” in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.
- Use “that” for essential clauses, important to the meaning of a sentence, and without commas: I remember the day that we met.
- Use “which” for nonessential clauses, where the pronoun is less necessary, and use commas: The team, which finished last a year ago, is in first place.
Tip: If you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use “which;” otherwise, use “that.” A “which” clause is surrounded by commas; no commas are used with “that” clauses.
Use “they” and “their” as gender-neutral pronouns when
- The subject of the sentence does not refer to a group of people rather than a specific person. Don’t use “he or she” and “his or her.” Example: Learn about how a Veteran [subject] can transfer their [pronoun] unused benefits.
- The subject of the sentence uses they/their pronouns.
Times and time zones
Write out times, using a.m. and p.m. with periods: 9:15 a.m.
- Spell out noon and midnight. Don’t use 12:00 p.m. or 12:00 a.m.
- Include the minutes, even when on the hour.
- When referencing office hours, always use the time zone ET, even if the office is in another location (no parentheses, periods, or daylight/standard).
- Like this: 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET
- Not this: 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ET
When referencing international time zones, use the time zone name for that country or the UTC (coordinated universal time) offset. (Example: Central European Time; Korea Standard Time; UTC +2)
In an application or tool that has a time stamp of a user’s progress or saved work, show hours in their local time zone.
In body copy, write out ranges using sentence construction: We’re open 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.
Where space is limited, indicate ranges with the – en dash (not the shorter - hyphen) and a space on either side. Don’t combine the en dash with from/between sentence construction.
- Like this: 8:15 a.m. to noon ET
- Not this: From 8:15 a.m. to noon ET
A trademark is a brand, symbol, word, etc., used by a manufacturer or dealer and protected by law to prevent a competitor from using it: AstroTurf, for a type of artificial grass, for example.
In general, use a generic equivalent unless the trademark name is essential to the story. When a trademark is used, capitalize it.
Don’t. Underlines can confuse readers who might think that they are hyperlinks.
Refer to “links” entry
In general, avoid this word. “Use” is almost always preferable for plain language.
Lowercase unless the first word in a sentence. Website is one word.
Refer to “that/which”
Use figures, without commas: 1975. Use commas only with a month and day: Dec. 18, 1994, was a special day. Use an s without an apostrophe to indicate spans of decades or centuries: the 1890s, the 1800s. To abbreviate a decade, ‘70s is acceptable. Years are the lone exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 1976 was a very good year.
Per AP style, use all-caps ZIP for Zone Improvement Plan, but always lowercase the word code.